Refugees and Crime: What is the Evidence?

It is hardly a surprise to anyone that the idea of some sort of a link between refugee resettlement and crime is pervasive. It was a central topic of debate in the 2016 US election. Due to the center stage of this topic, within the first week of President Trump’s term, the US refugee resettlement program was suspended for 120 days. So far in 2018, the US is on track to accept 77% fewer refugees than in 2016. Additionally, citizens from a number of countries are now banned from entering the United States. Chief among the reasons for enacting these policies is the idea that recently resettled refugees may cause unwanted crime in local communities, and that the refugee resettlement system could be used as a pipeline for terrorists to enter the United States.

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The Costs of Secondary Migration – Forthcoming in JIMI

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my research on refugee resettlement stretching back to 2014. I was in my first year in gradate school and working as a research assistant on a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. I am pleased to announce that my last research output from that time is finally published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration.

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Improving Refugee Resettlement Outcomes with Machine Learning and Big Data

We are in a time in history when the population of refugees and forced displaced people has perhaps never been larger. This, along with frustrating political stalemates regarding the root causes of humanitarian crises, suggests refugee resettlement as one salient way to reduce human suffering around the world. In the world’s top (3rd country) refugee receiving countries, however, public perception and nationalistic backlashes complicate this objective.

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Why Some Refugees Move Twice – My piece in the Forced Migration Review

As faithful readers of this blog will know, refugee resettlement was one of my very first research topics in graduate school. This was back in 2014, before… erm… the topic became politically toxic.

The research, in which I collaborated with Scott Loveridge, was of the qualitative variety. We set out to interview individuals from around the US who were involved in high-level decision making about refugee resettlement. All told we spoke with representatives from about 41 states. We supplemented our qualitative findings with some data from the US Office of Refugee Resettlement and the US Census American Community Survey.

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Refugees and Non-Zero Risk Choices

Twitter and the world (I guess they are one in the same now days) descended on all sorts of crazy last week when Donald Trump Jr. compared refugees to poisonous Skittles. The Guardian had a good round up of the brouhaha (HT Chris Blattman). Even people whose job isn’t necessarily to make smart political commentary have been speaking up. Here is music star, John Legend:


But the best, from what I’ve read at least, commentary on this comes from Adam Ozimek, an economics writer for He considers the whole issue as an issue of food safety. Here’s Adam in a short but sweet article, “I would Eat the Poisoned Skittles“:

The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk. Donald Jr’s comparison embraces a zero tolerance for risk when it comes to choices, be they food consumption or the entry of refugees. But we don’t embrace zero risk in our food consumption choices, so why should we with immigration?

Skittles may not be poisoned very often, but many foods carry a risk of intense sickness. According to the NOAA Fisheries division, Americans consume an average of one seafood meal a week. With 324 million people in the U.S., that amounts to 16.8 billion seafood meals a year consumed in the U.S. Each of these instances was a non-zero risk choice. The CDC estimates that 589,310 people are sickened from seafood every year due to bacterial, chemical, parasitic, and viral agents. That means each meal has a 0.0035% chance of becoming sick. Does Donald Trump Jr eat seafood?

This raises the question of how much riskier refugees are than seafood. According to the Cato Institute, of the 859,629 refugees who have come to the U.S. since 2001, only three have been convicted for planning a terrorist attack, and none of those attacks was in the U.S. Let’s say that the marginal refugee is 10x riskier than the average refugee, because they are coming from Syria or something. How do the odds stack up? That’s a 0.0035% chance that they are a terrorist, the exact same odds as seafood poisoning.

Here’s the thing, admitting refugees into our country does come with some risk. That risk, however, is remarkably low (even with a ridiculous multiplier through in) and for every family of refugees resettled at least one (probably more) dying child survives. This sort of non-zero risk choice is not only a choice I would make every time, it is a choice we all already make anytime we eat fish or beef or even buy food at a local farmers market.

Refugees: An Opportunity, Not a Burden

It is World Refugee Day and I’d like to highlight some additional insights from research published since my post last fall.

Philippe Legrain, founder of the Open Political Economy Network and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, recently wrote a paper with an important key finding: “Investing one euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years.” Here are a couple points from the report.

  • “Welcoming refugees is not only a humanitarian and legal obligation; it is an investment that can yield significant economic dividends.”
  • “From a global perspective, enabling people to move to more technologically advanced, politically stable and secure countries boosts their economic opportunities and world output.”
  • “The IMF calculates that additional spending in the EU on refugees of 0.09% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 and 0.11% in 2016 will raise its GDP by 0.13% by 2017. Add in the boost to the economy from refugees working and GDP could be 0.23% higher by 2020: a total increase of 0.84% of GDP between 2015 and 2020.”
  • “Refugees, who on average tend to be in their early twenties, can also provide a demographic dividend. Aging societies with a shrinking native working-age population, such as Germany’s, benefit from the arrival of younger refugees whose skills complement those of older, more experienced workers. Refugees can also help care and pay for the swelling ranks of pensioners.”
  • “Refugees provide a development dividend – to themselves, their children and their country of origin. Remittances to Liberia, a big refugee-sending country, amount to 18.5% of its GDP.”

I highly recommend reading this report: “Refugees Work: A Humanitarian Investment that Yields Economic Dividends“.

Additionally, some of my own work (joint with Scott Loveridge from MSU), forthcoming in the Forced Migration Review, unpacks the issue of refugee secondary migration and how the current mechanisms for resettling refugees could be improved. Thus, the key take-away, for me, is: even under a flawed and inefficient refugee resettlement system, refugees present a huge opportunity for advanced countries and the rest of the world. Imagine what could happen if we reformed the resettlement system!

P.S. for those of you in Washington D.C. Philippe Legrain will be presenting his work at the Center for Global Development next Monday, June 27 from 12:30 – 2:00pm.

(Debunking) The Case for Migration Restrictions

I had a blog post all written about this new working paper by Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett “The New Economic Case for Migration Restriction“, then Chris Blattman posted about this comedy show that summarizes the research much better than I ever could.

I strongly recommend taking the time to watch this. It will make you laugh, cry, weep, and think. (Pardon the occasional language.)

For the nerdier readers. I find this paragraph from the paper to be tremendously insightful and painfully relevant:

Permitting people to move from low-productivity places to high-productivity places appears to be by far the most efficient generalized policy tool, at the margin, for poverty reduction. Almost all policies intended to raise the incomes of people in poor places do so either modestly or not at all. A successful in situ anti-poverty program might raise the per-capita consumption of the world’s poorest households by US$54 per year (Banerjee et al. 2015). A two-year, six-component in situ intervention—guided by some of the top minds in development economics and backed by formidable financial and organizational resources—produced the equivalent annual consumption gain of the wage differentials of working in a rich versus poor country for one day. The harm to the poor from policies that produce such large losses for the poor cannot be systematically offset by the gains to any known in situ development intervention.

(Emphasis mine.)

HT: David MacKenzie and Chris Blattman

Top Posts from 2015

Another year has gone by and I’m still blogging. Here are a list of the top posts from the past year, listed in order of popularity.

1. 7 Thoughts on Syrian Refugees

2. Poor Behavior: 3 Myths about Behavioral Economics

3. [Book Review] Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong

4. The Economics of Climate Change and Water in Kenya

5. Scarcity, Hope, and the Psychology of Poverty

7 Thoughts On Syrian Refugees

Last year I paid my graduate school bills researching refugee resettlement in the United States. Back then, when I told people my research topic they usually responded, “Oh, interesting!” And refrained from asking any follow up questions. That’s all different now. Blog posts I’ve written months ago on the topic of refugee resettlement without much fan-fair are now top hits day after day. That being the case, I thought I’d summarize and list my thoughts on the topic, now that everyone seems to be listening:

  1. The lunacy of state-level action. What struck me first when hearing the news about the five state Governors who suspended the acceptance of Syrian refugees into their states was how silly the whole thing was. The US Refugee Assistance Program is a national program, put in place by the United States Refugee Act of 1980. Refugees are accepted by the United States–not individual states. They are resettled by local voluntary agencies that are funded by federal dollars, state dollars, and in-kind donations (largely from faith-based communities). Also–and here is the kicker–once refugees have been resettled in the United States, they have complete freedom to move wherever they like. So, if Michigan or Alabama or Georgia or Texas or Arizona really want to keep Syrian refugees out of their state, then they are going to have to try to get something done at the federal level, because simply refusing to initially accept refugees into their state isn’t going to prevent refugees from moving there. Oh, and according to some of my forthcoming research upwards of 15-25% of recently arrived refugees move across state boarders each year.
  2. Immigration Policy vs. Refugee Assistance Policy. They are different. It is dangerous and misleading to conflate the two. When the United States Refugee Act of 1980 was signed into law, individuals who entered the United States via recommendation from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHRC) were set apart as distinct from immigrants and were granted different rights and duties. Therefore, it is possible to be against systemic immigration policy reform (if you happen to fall into that camp) and still be in favor of welcoming Syrian refugees.
  3. The possibility of terrorist infiltration. Most of the fear (it seems) is driven by the possibility that terrorists could use the refugee resettlement system to get into the United States. Surely this is a serious concern, however, it is important to remember a couple details. First, of the over 14.4 million refugees around the world right now, less than 1% of them will ever be resettled in a third country (i.e. not their own or the country they fled to). Second, refugees are screened by the UNHCR, the US Department of Human Services, the US Department of Homeland Security, and travel on regular passenger airlines. So, while the possibility certainly exists, the odds are not very high. It is likely not even a top-ten best way to “sneak” into a country you want to destroy. For my money, the biggest threat (and France is a testament to this) is extreme social fragmentation of minorities based on race, religion, etc. Ensuring social and economic integration for ALL PEOPLE is any nation’s best (and most cost effective) security program.
  4. For Christians, the response (should be) obvious. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” – Deuteronomy 10:18. It sure sounds to me that God cares for refugees. Therefore, it follows quite simply that those who strive to live Christlike lives should (must) do the same. Yet this seemingly clear call hasn’t stopped prominent (and influential) pastors to shed theological ambiguity onto the matter. Ambiguity that doesn’t seem to exist for other issues (i.e. well, you fill in the blanks). It saddens me when our spiritual leaders are unable to untie themselves from the political dichotomies of our modern world.
  5. Refugees are an economic boon for any country they go to. This may be a controversial topic expect for the fact that it’s not. It’s immediately obvious that some refugees offer huge benefits to national economies. For example: STEVE JOB’S DAD WAS A SYRIAN REFUGEE. Imagine life without your Apple device… that is life without Syrian refugees ever being allowed into the United States. Now, the real question isn’t, ‘can refugees be beneficial?’ It is really, ‘are refugees beneficial on average?’ To this the evidence seems to suggest a resounding yes. Think about it: perhaps nobody on this planet is harder working and motivated to succeed. They ALL escaped death and were given a slew of new opportunities to live life.
  6. Syrian refugees are victims as well. Over the weekend it seemed like everyone, no matter political identity, religion, race, gender, or any other qualifier either changed their profile picture to red, white, and blue stripes or prayed for the victims of the tragic attack in Paris. It is easy to see the people of France being the victims of this all, but (at least) an equal share of the vicim-hood resides on those who were forced to flee their homes because of the terrorist organization that claimed responsibilities for the attacks in Paris.
  7. The (ongoing) refugee crisis is one of the greatest humanitarian issues of our day. Solving the problem of the suffering and squelching of dignity and freedom of over 14 million people in this world is one of the largest and most urgent of our generation. Are we going to allow 8 kids, acting in fear, to change our policies and procedures? I sure hope not.

For those who would like to make your voice heard to your state government representative about this issue, here is a list of phone numbers to call your Governor’s office.

“A Trickle of Syrian Refugees Settle Across the US”… and they’re (probably) moving

A couple days ago The New York Times ran a short story about Syrian refugees being resettled in the United States. Here’s an excerpt:

Since the Syrian conflict began four years ago, just 1,854 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the United States.

The refugees who have arrived from Syria since 2012 have been placed in 130 towns and cities. They are among the most vulnerable people in the war: single mothers and their children; religious minorities; victims of violence or torture.

Some of them have reached large cities like Houston, but most have been sent to more affordable, medium-size cities by the nine voluntary agenciesthat handle refugee resettlement. Boise, Idaho, has accepted more refugees than San Francisco and Los Angeles combined; Worcester, Mass., has taken in more than Boston.

Here’s a fancy map that shows where in the United States these Syrian refugees have been placed between 2012 and 2015. The map backs up the previous excerpt, Syrian refugees ARE being settled all across the United States, but that is not the whole story.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 6.56.25 PM

If you follow refugee resettlement at all, you’ll be aware of the phenomenon called ‘secondary migration’. This term describes the situation when a refugee moves to a different city (and often to a different state) shortly after being settled in the United States. Why would a refugee, who has just escaped a life threatening situation, move away from an initial placement location where they receive free services helping them find work and housing? Well, for many reasons, but some forthcoming research of mine suggests that the number one reason is to move closer to social networks of family or kin.

So when the following map is coupled with a conclusion that Syrian refugees are going to be living scattered all across the United States, a subtle yet important point is missed. Refugees will move and they will move to areas were other people with Syrian ancestry live.

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 7.09.23 PM

So where are Syrian refugees who have been resettled in the United States going to move to?

Well, don’t expect this map designed by The New York Times to tell you anything very easily. This map simply displays the information in the wrong way. This map shows the number of people of Syrian ancestry per 1000 people. Sure this may show us proportional Syrian population densities across the United States but it doesn’t tell us anything about where incoming Syrian refugees might move to. When people want to move to live closer to family and kin they simply find where most of their family and kin live.

So while their are a lot of dark blue counties in Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, and even Alaska; I can almost assure you this is not where the majority of Syrian secondary migrant refugees are going to be moving to. Rather I’d be willing to wager that the cities where there are already lots of people of Syrian ancestry living is where these folks are going to move to. These cities also happen to be where a lot of people in general live – the big cities on the coasts and Chicago.

So while Syrian refugees are being resettled across the United States in over 130 cities and towns (and we should do our best to welcome and ease their transition as best as possible). My research suggests that it is the 4 or 5 biggest cities in the United States that need to be prepared for Syrian refugees ultimately inhabiting their area.